BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–Vowing to work with families to find alternative therapies, Rep. Danielle Gregoire renewed her decade-long push to ban the use of a controversial electric shock device for people who have severe intellectual or developmental disabilities, this time before a pair of new legislative committee leaders.
Gregoire said she’s not trying to shutter the Judge Rotenberg Education Center, but she does want to block the Canton facility’s use of the graduated electronic decelerator, which the Marlborough Democrat likened to a bark collar for a dog and an electric fence for people.
Meanwhile, some parents of children with a history of aggressive and dangerous behavior praised the device as the only therapy that worked after a series of failed medications and other residential care settings.
Consideration of Gregoire’s proposal (H 180) to regulate aversive therapy follows a September ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court that allowed the center to continue using the electric shock devices but left open the possibility for future state action, according to Reuters.
Gregoire expressed hope that having new co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities — Sen. Robyn Kennedy and Rep. Jay Livingstone — could make a difference in advancing the bill that’s been repeatedly sent to study in past sessions. More than 30 lawmakers have signed onto her proposal.
“Science is not involved in what happens at the place with that device,” Gregoire said at a committee hearing Monday, as she noted the center is the only such facility in the country to use the electric shock device. “Obviously, this is something that I’m very passionate about, and I want to continue to work with members of this committee, as well as the members of both of our bodies, to see if there’s something we can get across the finish line because the whole ‘how is this legal’ and ‘how does it still happen’ is a conversation every single time that I have when I speak with someone about this.”
The Stop the Shock Coalition says center staff can administer shocks through the device in response to a variety of behaviors, including when patients engage in “simple and innocuous” actions like flapping their hands, standing up or closing their eyes, according to a report released this year.
Nathan Blenkush, the center’s longtime clinical director, called the device an “extraordinary treatment” for patients dealing with serious conditions that have caused self-inflicted injuries such as blindness, lost body parts and chronic wounds.
He told lawmakers about patients who have hit their heads thousands of times each day, some through glass windows at their school or on the bus. Other patients are so aggressive that eight people are needed to tackle and restrain them, Blenkush said.
“These are not conditions that are treated in an outpatient setting with just a drug or just an outpatient talk therapy or something like that,” Blenkush said. “These are conditions that are chronic, that start at an early age and persist through years of intervention, years of special education to the point where the patient has to leave their family at 10 or 11 years old, where they find themselves in psychiatric hospitals not just for a week — some of our patients have been there for years looking for places that are going to accept and treat them.”
Blenkush said patients who are approved for the treatment, some of whom have needed emergency restraint more than 5,000 times, see a nearly 100 percent reduction in their severe behavior. Blenkush said patients receive less than one skin shock each week, which he described as “not very restrictive” compared to other interventions.
Alex Bou-Rhodes, an attorney at the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, said that aversive therapy, particularly electric shocks, are “ineffective and unethical.” Tens of thousands of people elsewhere in the U.S. with behavioral problems are not subject to aversive interventions, he said.
“There’s no reason that people in Massachusetts shouldn’t be entitled to the same standard of care,” Bou-Rhodes said, as he encouraged lawmakers to read through the Food and Drug Administration’s ban on electric shock devices that outlined why the therapy is “not appropriate and not supported by medical research.”
That ban was overturned by a federal appeals court in 2021. Gregoire said the FDA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the electric shock device, which she said is only controlled by staff at the center.
“The ban was unlawful, and the FDA tried, and the Congress has tried, and basically the courts have left it to this Legislature to act on this issue,” Gregoire said. “So that’s why I’m coming again today to try to get us to act.”